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DURER, Albrecht (1471-1528). Rhinoceros. The Hague: Hendrick Hondius, c. 1620.

DURER, Albrecht (1471-1528). Rhinoceros. The Hague: Hendrick Hondius, c. 1620.


Single sheet, float mounted and framed (8 3/8 x 11 ¾ inches). EXCEPTIONALLY FINE woodcut engraving by Durer. CONDITION REPORT: Trimmed just outside the borderline above, to or on the borderline elsewhere, lacking the letterpress text above and below, in good condition apart from pale scattered fox marks, light touches of pen and ink on the horizontal crack through the legs, a nick at the tip of the upper right corner, a couple of central vertical folds (mainly visible verso), unframed.

6th edition (of 8 total editions), first published in 1515. A nice impression of Durer’s famous Rhinoceros, printed by Hendrick Hondius, on paper with a watermark of a single-headed eagle. This immediately recognizable image influenced Western depictions of the rhinoceros well into the 19th – and even the early 20th – century. “It is ironic that Albrecht Durer’s most widely distributed image of an exotic animal depicts a subject he had never seen. Typically, Durer’s independent animal and plant studies are imbued with a rich sense of realism and were drawn from life…In Durer’s ‘zoo’ the rhinoceros remains unique and unlike his other animal studies for two key reasons. First, the extraordinary and bizarre details of the rhinoceros’ appearance are suggestive of embellishment and fanciful creation on the part of the artist, and unusual in the context of Durer’s other more faithful depictions of animals. And secondly, despite the creation of other more ‘realistic’ depictions of the rhinoceros, it was Durer’s print that became a point of reference for naturalists and the public alike, accepted as a true likeness of a rhinoceros, with attempts to replace it doomed to failure.

“How do we know that Durer did not see the animal? There is a wealth of detail surrounding the rhinoceros that arrived in Lisbon, Portugal on 20 May 1515, the first rhinoceros to reach Europe alive since the third century. As was often the case with exotic creatures, the rhinoceros played an important role in court diplomacy and pageantry. Albuquerque, governor of Portuguese India had received the rhinoceros as a gift from Sultan Muzafar II, ruler of Gujarat. The governor in turn sent the animal, along with a cargo of spices, to his king in Portugal, Dom Manuel I, a rule known (like so many others) for his exotic tastes. Shipped from the region of Cambaia in north-west India, one of the farthest of Portuguese colonies, it is remarkable that the rhinoceros survived the journey – the novelty of this event, and the anticipation and excitement felt at court and amongst citizens of Lisbon cannot be underestimated.

“How did Durer come to depict the creature? The source for Durer’s image has been documented a sketch by Valentine Ferdinand, a Moravian printer who was present in Lisbon when the animal was shipped there. The usual claim is that a newsletter including the sketch by Ferdinand came into the possession of Durer shortly after the arrival of the rhinoceros. Durer then executed a drawing in brown ink after the image on which he included Ferdinand’s original inscription that begins with the statement ‘in the year 1515 there was brought to our king at Lisbon such a living-beast…on account of its wonderfulness I thought myself obliged to send you a representation of it.’ Durer then created his woodcut, including Ferdinand’s original inscription, though slightly changed in an attempt to lend the image an air of authenticity, stating ‘They call it a rhinoceros. It is represented here in its complete form.’ It seems likely that Durer intended for the print to have a wide distribution, since he used a wood block instead of a copper plate, thus allowing for a maximum number of impressions to be made.

“This print, obviously intended for public consumption, widely distributed, and the only animal study that Durer inscribed in such a manner, has also been described as the most idiosyncratic of his oeuvre. The rhinoceros appears to be dressed in a suit of armor and is covered in peculiar scale, with a variety of patterned plates covering its body, and a tiny dorsal horn that points to the letter ‘r’ in the rhinoceros label. Erwin Panofsky famously characterized the woodcut as follows: ‘Durer stylized the creature, bizarre in itself, into a combination of scales, laminae and shells, suggesting a fantastically shaped and patterned suit of armor.’ In the eighteenth century the naturalist James Parsons complained of Durer’s depiction because it was ‘adorned with scales, scallops and other fictitious forms.’ In short, Durer’s rhinoceros appeared to many commentators as far removed from ‘the real thing’…

“Durer’s idea of the rhinoceros remained a reference point for centuries to come. The wood block went into eight printings, seven of them posthumous. Two printings from the original wood block occurred in 1540 and 1550. In the seventeenth century the wood block came into the possession of Hendrick Hondius, a Dutch map printer, who prepared an additional wood block. The result is that numerous reproductions of the image as a print exist. Further, the sixteenth century was the burgeoning age of printed natural history texts, and a new emphasis was laid on the inclusion of images. Durer’s rhinoceros appeared in numerous natural histories, perhaps most significantly the Swiss doctor Conrad Gessner (1516-65) included the rhinoceros in his three-volume ‘Historiae Animalium’ of 1555-58, a text that is widely considered to be the beginning of modern zoology. In the seventeenth century Durer’s rhinoceros was included in zoological atlases. There is a notable dependence not only on the rhinoceros but also the other animals in Durer’s zoo in Sebastian Munster’s ‘Cosmographiae’ (1544). Indeed, writing in 1938 the art historian F. Winkler stated that school books had only then given up using Durer’s image of the rhinoceros in favour of more ‘naturalistic’ depictions” (Bubenik, pp. 100-102). Andrea Bubenik, “Reframing Albrecht Durer: The Appropriation of Art, 1528-1700.” B. 136; M., HOLL. 273. M. 224.


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